Altaf Mir became a critically acclaimed musician in one of Coke Studio's newest episodes, but he's celebrating his success away from his family since India-backed militias hounded him out of his hometown two decades ago.
ANANTNAG, India-administered Kashmir — Sometime in 1995, Altaf Mir left everything behind – his home, family, friends and everything he owned and everything that defined him in India-administered Kashmir. He crossed over the so-called "line of control" and started a new life in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
The line of control is a de-facto border and a heavily militarised zone with soldiers from both India and Pakistan guarding the disputed Kashmir region. It's a life-threatening expedition for a civilian to cross over from either end. So Mir became a memory for his family, which every now and then evoked feelings of longing and sadness.
Twenty years later in early July, however, Mir brought joy to his family in India-held Kashmir. He became an overnight YouTube sensation in the disputed territory after Pakistan's highly acclaimed musical platform Coke Studio featured him in one of its latest episodes.
Mir along with three other displaced Kashmiris performed a classic Kashmiri poem "Ha Gulo." In the video, the trio is seen dancing on the crooning melody, while wearing yellow caps, black sunglasses and traditional Kashmiri phirans – a loose-fitting cloak Kashmiri people wear in winters.
Ever since the song was released on Coke Studio's YouTube channel, Mir's mother Raja Begum has spent hours watching it on a smartphone. She can't resist her tears as she watches her son perform.
“I just want to see him again," Begum told TRT World. "I grieve his absence. His father passed away longing to see him. I stare at his face while watching this song. He has turned old. I can see he is missing his home too.”
So, what forced Mir to leave home?
In 1991, Altaf was 22 years old and the armed insurgency against the Indian rule in Kashmir was in full swing.
Hundreds of Kashmiri men crossed over to Pakistan-administered Kashmir to receive arms training.
Mir quit his chain-stitching job and crossed over in the summer of 1990.
“I became a militant because there was too much oppression against Kashmiri people," Mir told TRT World in a phone interview. "There were military crackdowns every day. So many people were getting killed. I thought I should do something about it."
A few months after finishing the training on the other side, Mir returned to his hometown in south Kashmir's Anantnag district.
Compared to other militants of his town, Mir was a bit of an oddball. He spent most of his time away from the conflict, but closer to music. He found solace in singing at Sufi gatherings.
"He was only interested in Kashmiri Sufi music," his brother Javid said. "He joined militancy on the spur of the moment because everyone else was crossing over to become a militant.”
To defeat the militancy, the Indian government took several harsh measures, including the creation of the Ikhwan, a deadly militia group accused of several assassinations, murders, rapes, torture, extortion and other crimes.
Anantnag, Mir's hometown, became one of the main bastions of the Ikhwan. Mir said he was on Ikhwan's "hit list," and members of the militia often barged into his house and harassed his mother and other family members.
“Even two of my cousins were killed," Mir said.
Mir recalls one particular incident with signs of anger and frustration clear in his voice. “My mother was taken away one or two times by the Ikhwan. She was innocent but they harassed her because of me. It disturbed me.”
Fear of the Ikhwan threw his family into disarray. “My father would find shelter at one relative’s house and my mother would be at someone else's house. Such were the times,” he said.
To put an end to it, Mir went far away – out of his family's sight and out of Ikhwan's reach – and settled in Muzaffarabad, the capital city of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
“I didn’t want my family to suffer because of me. I had seen too much oppression already,” he reasons.
In Muzaffarabad, Mir joined a local NGO, where he trained youth in chain stitching.
As he began to settle down, scraping together some work, he also founded the band Qasamir with three other Kashmiris.
Mir said in early 2018, one of his friends informed him that "a Kashmiri woman from Coke Studio" wanted him to sing a Kashmiri Sufi song for them.
“I agreed and the Coke Studio people called me, and their entire team came to Muzaffarabad to shoot the song here with my band. It was exciting,” Mir said.
With his music video becoming an instant hit, crossing one million views on YouTube in two months' time, Mir is elated. “I am very happy that Kashmiri music got such a stage,” he said. “I am nothing without the Kashmiri language. My mother tongue has given me this love and respect today. The respect is not for me, it's for our Kashmiri language.”
Soon after his video came out, Mir also received invitations to several TV shows in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, and most recently he performed in Peshawar and Lahore.
“I sang Kashmiri Sufi music there and people were thrilled,” he said.